AUSTRALIA: The fear of idealism, Rudd and refugees

78 Tamil refugees still refuse to leave the Australian customs ship which rescued them from their boat just under two weeks ago. They were heading for Australia but the Australian took them back to Indonesia. This is a part of the Rudd government’s plan for the “Indonesian solution” whereby more refugees trying  to get to Australia via Indonesia will be detained there.

Street protest against Rudd refugee policy, Nov 2 - photo Marcus Pabian

Not a one shall be allowed to pass – this seems to be the spirit of the government policy. This spirit can’t be covered up by tactics like concentrating the invective on the people organising the departures, designated as “people smugglers” and “scum”. The aim is to surround the departure of these refugees from Indonesia to Australia with the aura of total unacceptability.

What motivates this policy?

Is there a  fear of a major social problem or even crisis resulting from the entry into Australia of more refugees from Sri Lanka or Afghanistan or Iraq? I don’t think so. The arrival of refugees, including in larger numbers than is threatened at the moment, has never been a major problem.

The underlying fear among the political “leaders” (huh?) of the Australian Labour Party (ALP) is of the consequences of fighting any prejudice that exists among the Australian people as a lingering remnant of decades old White Australia policy or of more recent agitation by the overtly right-wing of Australian politics, the Liberal and National Parties and similar bodies, especially during the decade plus long period of John Howard’s reign. There is little doubt that such prejudices still exist and influence the political outlook and votes of enough people to affect the outcome in elections where a 5% difference between tweedle-in and tweedle-out parties can indeed make the difference.

So get the votes and concede to the prejudices.

Or why not campaign to change the prejudices, and win support that way?

But to campaign vigorously and honestly against those prejudices would mean appealing to people’s idealism, their sense of human solidarity, It would mean arguing that refugees have a right to haven. It would open up for deeper discussion the reasons why they are fleeing, which would turn focus attention on the huge divide between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, capital and labour, imperial and exploited countries.

It would ask the simple question: why expect an underdeveloped country like Indonesia with an average per capita income way, way below that of Australia to have to look after such refugees and not Australia, which has much more capacity to do so?

To launch such a campaign would mean creating a political and cultural atmosphere where idealism, human solidarity, questioning and activism would all be encouraged. And that prospect creates much more fear among Australia’s political and business elites ever than the arrival of 10, or 50 or 100 thousand refugees. Idealism and solidarity stand in direct opposition to what those elites represent.